FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — It was early June, the Jets had just finished another ordinary OTA workout, and the players were milling about the locker room when David Harris, the veteran middle linebacker, learned he had been released. Harris was the Jets’ longest-tenured player, a respected leader. His salary wasn’t cumbersome, and he wasn’t blocking any up-and-coming talent. The front office seemed to have no obvious reason to cut him.
“I was heartbroken,” says Sheldon Richardson, who was right there when Harris first heard the news. “David Harris has been there for me when I was in tight situations. He’s been a big brother to me, helping me become a better professional.” Richardson seemed to be referring to the summer of 2015, when he was 24 years old and charged for street racing and resisting arrest (and later found guilty). Now here he was hugging Harris and saying an abrupt goodbye.
A few weeks later, Harris signed with the rival Patriots. Richardson spoke with him afterward: “I said, ‘I thought you weren’t going to the Patriots—they did this, man!’ He said, ‘S---, man, I had to. They offered.’ ” By “they did this,” Richardson was presumably referring to the Jets’ current state of futility. After they went 5-11 last year with a roster full of veterans—finishing well behind the Patriots once again—the franchise decided to enter a full rebuild. The front office started by stripping the roster of a few of those pricey veterans (Brandon Marshall, Darrelle Revis, and Nick Mangold), but then the process took a weird turn, when the team released Harris and Eric Decker in June, during summer workouts, well beyond the normal time teams release players. Some outsiders have gone as far as accusing the Jets of purposefully tanking the 2017 season, in order to secure the No. 1 over all pick in 2018—a practice that is more associated with the NBA and almost unheard of in the NFL.
So when the Jets opened training camp last week, the football world was curious. There was no use for updates on the quarterback competition or the two rookies starting at safety or moves on the depth chart. The only question worth asking: Are the Jets tanking?
On Monday, reporters asked two of the people who are most qualified to answer it—and they both deflected it. Mike Maccagnan, the Jets’ general manager, met with the beat writers and expressed some optimism. He even refused to say the word tanking. “I’m not going to put any limitations on what we can or can’t do” this year, Maccagnan said. He later added that he felt this was going to be an “exciting season.” A short time later, Roger Goodell met with local reporters after having sat in on a Q&A session with Jets season-ticket holders. “I don’t think any team tanks,” Goodell said. “I really don’t. I think the teams, depending on where you are, go through transitions. They are looking to sort of say, You know, we need to build more talent here. [We can] do that through the draft. Let’s let some of veterans go and develop some of our younger players. That’s always been part of football. That’s always been part of sports . . . every team does that differently.”
Nevertheless, hundreds of fans flocked to the Jets’ headquarters on Monday afternoon, for the team’s first padded practice and the first practice open to the public. Near the fields, the team set up a fan experience zone in a parking lot, full of interactive games, inflatable slides and obstacle courses. At one station, fans could pose for a picture in front of a picture of the Jets’ locker room. In the lockers, there weren’t any specific player jerseys on display, but rather seven generic jerseys with the number 1 and “Jets” written on the nameplate. No wonder some pundits say the Jets have the worst roster in the NFL.
When the players took the field, they went through their normal stretching routine and started their normal drills—and no one appeared to be overtly tanking. All of this talk about tanking has put the players and coaches in an awkward situation. Their pride and their livelihoods are on the line. They have no incentive to tank. No one on the field ever wants to lose. They just try to block out the noise. “We don’t pay that s--- no mind—at all. At all,” Richardson says. “[Pundits] don’t know s---. At all. Other than that, honestly, it’s just staying focused, nose to the grindstone.”
For now, before the season starts, the players are still holding on to some hope. “It doesn’t matter what it looks like on paper, because that’s not necessarily true,” says running back Matt Forte. “If you looked at us on paper last year, you’re like, that team looks like it may be pretty stacked. Didn’t turn out that way . . . The games have to be played. It’s not like a simulation game in Madden, where you automatically finish wherever your team is ranked or whatever.”
The coaching staff, meanwhile, is preaching, “Change the culture,” which sounds like a positive way to label the rebuild/alleged tank. With all those veterans gone, there will be a lot of opportunity for a new wave of young Jets. Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye, two rookies, are expected to start at safety. The 25-year-old Quincy Enunwa has a chance to prove he’s a No. 1 receiver. Three of their four projected starting linebackers are 24 years old or younger.
Then there are the quarterbacks. When they started throwing passes on Monday, one fan shouted facetiously, “Three best quarterbacks in the league, baby!” There was Josh McCown, a 38-year-old journeyman the Jets brought in as a stopgap; Christian Hackenberg, a 2016 second-round pick who’s never taken a regular-season snap; and Bryce Petty, a former fourth-round pick. McCown took the snaps with the first team and Hackenberg with the second, but at some point, Hackenberg will likely get a chance to play. The common belief is that if the Jets are indeed tanking, their goal would be to land the top pick to draft a franchise quarterback, and before they do that, they need to thoroughly evaluate Hackenberg.
None of the quarterbacks looked particularly impressive on Monday. They bounced passes short, missed passes wide, and sailed passes high. Most of the time, they kept the passes short, dinking and dunking their way through the drills. The one outlier seemed to be Hackenberg’s arm strength, on the rare occasion he let a pass rip down the field.
At one point, though, Hackenberg had trouble with something as simple as communicating in the huddle during a seven-on-seven drill. Once, when the offense walked to the line of scrimmage, John Morton, the offensive coordinator, ordered them to re-huddle. They did, and Morton stood in the huddle next to Hackenberg. Then they broke the huddle the wrong way again—and Hackenberg was immediately sent off the field.
The coaches are harping more on the details this year, Forte says, which is to be expected with such a young team. “We weren’t breaking the huddle right,” Forte says. “It’s about being focused on what’s going on at the time. You’re thinking about the play too much and you’re not breaking the huddle right. I mean, if the defense listens to you break the huddle crisply and run up to the line, they’re like, Whoa. But if they break it and you’re like, uhhhh . . . It’s a mentality.”
The next time Hackenberg entered the huddle, he broke it correctly. Then he ripped a pass about 20 yards down field, in between two defenders, for a completion. The crowd roared. McCown ran up, gave him a fist bump, and slapped him hard on the butt.
Does that sound like a team that’s tanking? Well, you be the judge.
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